Lloyd Richards, Revered Director, Dies at 87

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Lloyd Richards, one of the most respected directors and educators in American theater, died in Manhattan on his 87th birthday. Richards was the first African American to direct a Broadway play: A Raisin in the Sun.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliot.

Lloyd Richards, one of the most revered directors and educators in American theater, died Thursday in Manhattan on his 87th birthday. This soft-spoken man was the first African-American to direct a Broadway play, A Raisin in the Sun. NPR's Allison Keyes has the story of his legacy.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Richards made history in 1959 with Lorraine Hansberry's landmark drama about a black family moving into a white neighborhood on Chicago's Southside. The production starred Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier, and was later remade as a movie.

(Soundbite of movie "A Raisin in the Sun")

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): (As Walter Lee Younger) I'm looking in the mirror this morning and I'm thinking I'm 35 years old, I'm married 11 years, and I got a boy who's got to sleep in the living room 'cause I got nothing, eh? Nothing to give him but stories, like on how rich white people live, eh?

Ms. RUBY DEE (Actress): (As Ruth Younger) Eat your eggs, Walter.

Mr. POITIER: Damn these eggs.

KEYES: Ruby Dee says Richards taught his actors how to think beyond the square and how to pick out the things in the human mechanism that made for drama and conflict. But, she says, he was also a gentleman.

Ms. DEE: You would not suspect on meeting him that he was as fierce a director. He had a way of conveying the fierceness gently, you know what I mean? He asked you the right questions to lead you to the passion of the character.

Mr. WOODIE KING JR. (New Federal Theater): He was a master at that. He was a master at translating the human condition in some sort of beautiful and artistic way and translating that to an audience.

KEYES: Woodie King Jr. is founder and producing director of one of the nation's premier black theater companies, the New Federal Theater in New York City. He says Richards influenced three generations of theater artists. In addition to the Broadway shows Richards directed, he was also dean of the Yale School of Drama, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, and director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Connecticut.

Mr. KING: He was not just the Afro-American. He radiated across the board. He was probably one of the top 10 creators in the American theater.

KEYES: King says Richards was a master at shaping a playwright's work. A year before rehearsals started for A Raisin in the Sun, Lloyd Richards and Lorraine Hansberry were meeting weekly, polishing the script. Richards told NPR in 1991, it was an approach he followed later with other playwrights.

Mr. LLOYD RICHARDS (Director): They've done something. I should take it a step further in my thought. Then they should take it a step further from their thought. That's what progress comes out of. When you're working with a living playwright on a new play, then you are helping to evolve that work.

KEYES: Richards was the son of Jamaican immigrants, born in Canada and then raised in Detroit. He had planned to study law at Wayne State University. Instead, he ended up working as an actor and later as an acting coach. His ability to develop young talent was legendary.

Glenn Close and James Earl Jones were among the luminAres who passed through Yale's theater while Richards was in residence there. He also helped guide the efforts of nearly 300 playwrights, including Sam Shepard, Lee Blessing, and most notably, the late August Wilson.

Mr. AUGUST WILSON (Playwright): He offered me a place to stand, a platform from which I can, in a word, sing.

KEYES: Wilson told NPR in 1991 that Richards, who directed six of his plays on Broadway, contributed a great deal to his development.

Mr. WILSON: I've constantly looked to reward that faith that has been placed in me, and I'm constantly learning things from him: a way to live, if you will, to live your life with integrity and dignity, and all these sorts of things that I learned from my association with him.

KEYES: August Wilson and other playwrights of color might not have believed they belonged on Broadway, Richards told NPR, were it not for the success of A Raisin in the Sun.

Mr. RICHARDS: They weren't writing just against a stone wall. Someone had made it, and they could too.

KEYES: As actor Charles Dutton says, Lloyd had only two sons, but he had a lot of children. Lloyd Richards died of heart failure on Thursday. He was 87 years old. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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